The Life of Mr. “How Do You Do?”
The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye
2013, $28.95, pp 480
Let us begin with Sholem Aleichem’s afterlife. And why not? Jeremy Dauber practically invites us to do so with the subtitle to his engrossing biography of the writer who entered this world as Sholem Rabinovich. The afterlife has lasted nearly twice as long as the actual life, with still a long way to go, if Dauber has it right.
In this afterlife, Sholem Aleichem is all but indistinguishable to modern audiences from his most enduring creation: Tevye the dairyman, he who has daidle-deedle-daidled his way through countless stage productions of Fiddler on the Roof, from New York to Tokyo. This blurring is regrettable for Dauber, a professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University. “Tevye,” he writes, “is a rural Jew with little education and less worldly experience (different from wisdom, of course), and Sholem Aleichem an educated, elite cosmopolitan.”
Yet maybe the creator and the created are not so dissimilar, after all. “The difference between the two,” Dauber goes on to say, “diminishes when it comes to living the emotional complexities of conflicts posed by their rapidly changing worlds.” If Tevye copes with daughters who marry the men they love and not whom their parents choose, and who even—Gottenyu!—wed outside the faith, Sholem Aleichem dealt with a “jaw-dropping, whipsawing series of changes in his religious, economic and educational state.”
The problem with linking the writer so tightly with his chief character is that it risks trivializing Sholem Aleichem. Thanks to Fiddler—or should that be no thanks?—he is regarded by many as little more than a sweet narrator of sentimental folk tales, someone persistently relegated, Dauber tells us, to “the American literary sidelines.” Largely overlooked, he says, is the extent to which this was “a complex, self-conscious literary artist.”
On the other hand, who is to say where Sholem Aleichem would be today, in memory, nearly a century after his death in 1916 at age 57, were it not for a cultural force like Fiddler? But on still another hand—apologies for this echo of Tevye—Sholem Aleichem, both the man and “the figure Sholem Rabinovich fashioned by will, effort and imagination,” needed no Broadway Tevye to solidify his standing as “a culture hero.”
In his work, he played tradition against modernity, providing later generations with “a way of talking about their own beliefs and questions about Jewish life, history and culture,” Dauber says. As for that oft-noted light writing style, “whether they know it or not every Jewish comic of the twentieth century—from your joke-telling uncle to Mel Brooks to Franz Kafka—walks in Sholem Aleichem’s comic shadow, which mixes humor, horror and anger in equal parts.”
The worlds of Sholem Aleichem were largely Jewish and Russian, but he spent long stretches in so many countries—including, at the end, America—that his universe was expansive.
With an eye for interesting detail, Dauber takes us year-by-year through a life that began in 1859, when Rabinovich was born in a part of the Russian empire that is now Ukraine. His father was a well-to-do-businessman who later lost it all. His mother died in a cholera epidemic when he was 13. He then endured a shrewish stepmother. One way or another, these relatives, along with plenty of acquaintances, provided material for the young writer, who assumed the pseudonym Sholem Aleichem when he was 24. The name is, of course, a Yiddish variant of the Hebrew for “peace be with you.” It is such a standard greeting among Jews that Dauber offers a breezier translation: how do you do.
This biography follows Mr. How Do You Do’s path in a relaxed style, graced with an occasional glint-in-the-eye touch, for example, when he refers to Sholem Aleichem’s “sense of the golden rule—i.e., that he who has the gold makes the rules.” This being a literary biography, Dauber shows how the triumphs and travails of key characters, like Tevye and the dreamer Menakhem-Mendl and the orphan Motl, track the man’s own life.
Much of that life will be familiar to those versed in Sholem Aleichem’s worlds:
His marriage to Olga Loyeff, a wealthy estate manager’s daughter. His decision to largely forgo Hebrew as his medium in favor of Yiddish, even though it was widely dismissed at the time as unworthy “jargon.” His emergence in the 1880s as an author to be reckoned with, a reputation solidified over the next two decades. His persistent money troubles, including an ultimately vain struggle to keep alive a journal that he edited. His Zionist activism. His battles with tuberculosis, which led him to Italy, Switzerland and Germany in search of sanitariums and more favorable climes.
Then there were his journeys to the United States.
The first was in 1906, soon after pogroms swept across southern Russia. He sailed to New York from London on a ship called the St. Louis. Dauber might have noted the grim irony. Three decades later, the sailing of a more famous St. Louis became the voyage of the damned: 937 German Jews who fled Hitler, only to be denied sanctuary by Cuba, the United States and Canada.
Jews in New York greeted Sholem Aleichem robustly — unless, that is, they were literary or theater reviewers. It was in this period that he came to be described famously as “the Jewish Mark Twain,” though Twain demurred with the observation that he himself was “the American Sholem Aleichem.” Critics in America’s Yiddish-speaking world were far less generous. They found Sholem Aleichem wanting. He found them insufferable. By 1908, “our hero,” as Dauber refers to him in every chapter heading, had enough of the “Dollar-Land,” America. He returned to Russia. For all the heartache that it offered, it also had a Yiddish society that was “calling me there, winking to me from afar.” But after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, European Jews were in a fix, caught between battling Germany and Russia. Sholem Aleichem returned to Dollar-Land, where this time he found greater critical and commercial success. It was not destined to last. Chronic illness caught up with him, and he died in his apartment on Kelly Street in the Bronx on May 13, 1916.
To the end, Sholem Aleichem was triskaidekaphobic, which is a fancy-shmancy way of saying that he lived in dread of the number 13. Page 13 in his manuscripts became 12a. His headstone in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens renders the date of his death as May 12a, 1916. His burial followed a remarkable funeral cortege through the streets of New York, with 100,000 people lining the sidewalks, according to a New York Times account. This book puts the number at between 150,000 and 200,000.
Now we have the long afterlife, in which there is no escape from Fiddler. For Dauber, the show is truly “a creature of the sixties,” when unruly change often overwhelmed tradition. It is far more “an authentic expression of the midcentury Broadway musical,” he writes, “than of the actual world of the actual Sholem Aleichem.”
But I ask you, as Tevye might say, is that so terrible? How many people are dutifully honored almost 100 years after their death? In accordance with his will, Sholem Aleichem’s descendants and others continue to gather faithfully on his yahrzeit to recite his stories—“one of the really joyous ones,” as he requested.
“The afterlife of Sholem Aleichem is still young,” Dauber concludes, and who is about to argue with that?
Clyde Haberman is metropolitan columnist for The New York Times.